|ROBERT AUSURA is a writer and photographer living in Gaithersburg, Md.
International Use of F37 Standards
The aviation sector is very much an international community. Because F37 standards had extensive international input during their development, have demonstrated a high level of safety and can be easily modified to respond to advances in safety and engineering, they have been adopted in regulations or have been used in aircraft certifications in Australia, Chile, Colombia and South Africa. Similar regulations are in the approval process in Brazil, Canada, India, Israel, the European Union and New Zealand.
Flying on the Wings of Change
Aviation is flying headlong into a new era. New classes of aircraft are taking to the skies. Safety concerns are prompting reevaluations of traditional design and maintenance practices. And for the first time in 80 years, the federal government has turned to consensus standards to reduce the regulatory burden on aircraft manufacturers for aircraft certification. It is a real revolution, and ASTM International is giving that revolution its wings.
From Pioneering to Regulation
A hundred years ago, the sky was wide open to anyone and any machine that could reach it. Soon though, inventors and hobbyists turned entrepreneur and rushed to develop marketable aircraft for jobs such as hauling mail and dropping bombs. Yet when it came to commercial passenger service, however, the fledgling industry was grounded by its spotty safety record and in 1926, after years of failing to win public trust on its own, it supported the establishment of the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce, the forerunner of today’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“Most people don’t realize,” says Michael Howell of Northrop Grumman’s unmanned aircraft systems team, “that when you walk outside, the air over your head belongs to the FAA.” That “air” in the United States is the National Airspace System, and until recently all aircraft sold ready-to-fly had to be built in accordance with Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 23 and certified through exhaustive testing. FAR Part 23, is the baseline for the FAA’s design and certification requirements for a minimum level of safety, and is largely credited with aviation’s remarkable safety record. But in recent years FAR Part 23 has become an obstacle to an industry looking to introduce new products and correct longstanding safety problems. Working with the FAA, three ASTM International committees F37 on Light Sport Aircraft, F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and F39 on Normal and Utility Category Airplane Electrical Wiring Systems have largely cleared that obstacle.
By the 1990s, FAA certification had pushed the price of entry-level airplanes well past the $200,000 mark, leaving many recreational pilots and newcomers to aviation with the options of flying ultralights (single-seat vehicles of less than 254 lb (115 kg) and limited to a 5 gal (19 L) fuel capacity) or building their own aircraft and registering them as “experimental” airplanes.
Outside the United States, a third option has become popular over the past decade. Designed for recreation and training, the new category comprises one- or two-seat single-engine aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight roughly half that of conventional entry-level planes. In the United States and Australia, this category is known as light sport aircraft, or LSA.
Simpler and less expensive than aircraft built under FAR Part 23, they have the potential to fill a large void in the market. Yet because they did not meet FAA certification requirements, LSA could not be sold or flown in the United States, and the FAA lacked the staff, the funding and the inclination to develop regulations for a new class of airplanes.
It was Michael Gallagher, the head of the FAA’s Small Aircraft Directorate in Kansas City, Mo., who broke the impasse by proposing something that the FAA had never done before: regulating a class of aircraft through voluntary consensus standards. The National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1996 (implemented through OMB Circular A-119) requires federal agencies to use consensus standards whenever possible. Here was a situation where the NTTAA could drastically reduce the regulatory burden for aircraft design and certification. So in 2002 the FAA proposed issuing airworthiness certificates to light sport aircraft based on the manufacturer’s certification that the aircraft comply with airworthiness consensus standards. It was a golden opportunity for the industry to begin to regulate itself, yet the LSA manufacturer community was uncertain it could take advantage of it.
“The industry tried several times before to organize and create standards, and it never worked,” says Thomas Peghiny, president of Flight Design USA, which imports the Flight Design CT line of German light sport aircraft. “I witnessed a couple of attempts personally.” Why the string of failures? “Lack of structure,” he says.
ASTM International Opens a Horizon
That’s where ASTM International came in. “We were very lucky,” says Eric Tucker, technical director for Kodiak Research, Ltd., the North and South American distributor of Rotax aircraft engines. “One of the key stakeholders in the aviation community is the EAA [the Experimental Aircraft Association], and some of its people Earl Lawrence in particular had experience from the aviation fuels committee under ASTM International.”
Earl Lawrence, EAA’s vice president for government and industry relations, had served on the ASTM committee that established standards for automotive fuels used in aviation engines. He, along with the ASTM staff, arranged a planning meeting that led to an organizational meeting in Oshkosh, Wis., to gain approval from key stakeholders. ASTM International Vice President of Corporate Development Drew Azzara led the discussion and explained how the ASTM process could help the industry develop the standards it needed. The hundreds of aviation industry representatives at the meeting were impressed and decided to give it a go.
“I went into the process thinking that it would never work,” admits Gregg Ellsworth, an air safety investigator with Ballistic Recovery Systems, which manufactures parachutes that enable disabled aircraft to reach the ground safely. “I’ve been in this industry awhile, and I thought, there was no way these people are ever going to get together to do a consensus standard.” But when ASTM Committee F37 on Light Sport Aircraft was formed, Ellsworth signed on and gradually changed his mind.
The committee immediately tackled the issues of LSA design, performance, quality acceptance tests and safety monitoring, and in a surprisingly short time had the first consensus standards out for review. Along the way, Committee F37 became an early user of ASTM’s new virtual meeting system, which allows committee members at different locations to teleconference by phone and simultaneously view online the documents under discussion. During the weekly meetings of Subcommittee F37.40 on Weight Shift, it was commonplace to have on-line participation from Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The committee also established new working relationships among the aviation industry, user groups, academics and of course, the FAA.
“No issue ever came down to a disagreement between the committee and the FAA,” says Tom Peghiny. “We were all working toward the same thing. Our task was to comply with the federal aviation light sport aircraft rules. They set the box, and we had to fill in the box.”
Eric Tucker, who serves as vice chair of Committee F37, concurs. “The FAA didn’t just sit back and watch the action. They were part of it. And that, I think, is a reason the standards have worked so well.”
So well that the FAA has adopted them and many manufacturers quickly integrated them as the basis of their designs, manufacturing operations and quality programs. More recently, larger players have entered the market, such as Cessna Aircraft Co., which has used the standards to develop its first proof-of-concept LSA. “They’re really a nice set of standards that are appropriate for this type of airplane, which is a simple-to-fly, training airplane,” says Neal Willford, Cessna Aircraft Company’s LSA project manager. “Some of the things that apply to the more complicated airplanes aren’t in there.”
Anyone who follows the news knows about the military’s use of unmanned aircraft systems such as the Predator but are likely unaware that the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies use contracted UAS services for tasks from scouting forest fires to reconnoitering the country’s borders. And the potential for commercial applications such as aerial surveying and monitoring of pipelines and high tension electric lines is soaring. But, like LSAs prior to 2002, UASs do not meet traditional FAA regulations and so are prohibited from operating freely in the NAS.
“Depending on your viewpoint, these aircraft are offering a valuable service or posing a potential hazard to the airspace,” says Northrop Grumman’s Mike Howell. After 11 years in the business, he is convinced that the potential market for UASs is enormous. “But until we can open things up and get access to the National Air Space,” he says, “it’s going to be a slow process.”
In April 2003, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and other stakeholders approached ASTM International for help in opening up that air space. Within months, ASTM Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems was established to help develop rules for UAS certification, flight operations, and maintenance, and a clear path that manufacturers could follow to file for airworthiness certificates. Most important, the committee is addressing the crucial safety issue of UAS’s “sense and avoid” capacity that is, their ability to detect other aircraft and avoid collisions by developing standards for the use of radar, LIDAR (light-imaging detection and ranging), electro-optical (television), and infrared sensors.
Complicating standards development is the diversity of UAS. “When you talk about unmanned vehicles,” says Howell, “they range from Global Hawk, which flies at 65,000 feet and is quite a large aircraft, down to the hand-tossed things that might go out to line-of-sight visual range and weigh 5 or 6 pounds.” Developing standards to cover this broad range requires understanding the state of the industry, so Committee F38 conducts UAS operator surveys that collect data on available types of UAS, how they are used, what operator training is provided, and how maintenance is performed. This data helps the committee identify where standards are needed and what efforts are under way to develop them. To fill the gaps found to date, Committee F38 has already published seven standards and has 15 more in the pipeline an early indication that there are likely clear skies ahead for the UAS industry.
Aircraft Electrical Wiring: A Safety Crisis
The explosion of TWA flight 800 in July 1996 shocked the nation. The results of the accident investigation shocked the aviation industry.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that an explosion in the center wing fuel tank probably caused the accident. NTSB could not determine with certainty the source of the ignition energy, but most likely it was a short circuit in the fuel quantity indication system.
During subsequent inspections of the aging airline fleet, the industry found significant deficiencies in the maintenance of aircraft wiring systems.
“An FAA and industry team inspected a representation of 81 aircraft in the aging commercial airline fleet,” says Ric Peri of the 1,300-member Aircraft Electronics Association, who chairs ASTM Committee F39, “During this inspection the working group found 3,215 wiring discrepancies. In some of the more isolated areas of the aircraft, wires had not been maintained or had limited maintenance, in some cases for 30 years.” Where maintenance had been performed, it was sometimes poorly done, with wiring rerouted along fuel lines and placed in contact with metal surfaces. A major reason was that FAA regulations concerning electrical wiring maintenance, written in 1961, had never been updated or effectively implemented.
In 2004, the FAA asked standards developing organizations to submit proposals on how they would structure a standards program to resolve the crisis. ASTM International’s proposal was selected, and the aviation industry created Committee F39 on Normal and Utility Category Airplane Electrical Wiring Systems. The committee develops standards for electrical wiring system design, fabrication, modification, inspection and maintenance to replace FAA’s outdated documents.
Like ASTM International’s other aviation committees, Committee F39 has an international membership and aims at developing a universal standard for aviation worldwide. To date, the committee has completed standard guides for aircraft electrical load and power source capacity analysis, and the design, alteration, and certification of aircraft electrical systems essential first steps toward bringing aircraft maintenance into the 21st century.
Big Benefits Today and Tomorrow
It is too soon to assess the impact of consensus standards on aircraft electrical wiring or the UAS industry, but for LSA the business impact has been dramatic. “We’ve gone from $800,000 a year to $9 million,” says Tom Peghiny of his company’s sales of LSA. According to Eric Tucker, Rotax has seen a 30 percent increase in engine orders. “We’re seeing flight schools put in one, two, even 10 of these aircraft for pilot training. There is no doubt that the ASTM process and the entire rule itself has been advantageous to our business.”
Peghiny sees the LSA standards as the beginning of a renaissance in aviation. “Not only will people be introduced to aviation and that will lead to sales of other types of planes, but it will keep airports open and keep people in who might otherwise get out because of high cost. ASTM International helped to create an industry where there was none before. It is going to breathe new life into grassroots aviation.”
The LSA standards are already opening the door to new manufacturers and new innovations and, in contrast to FAR Part 23, consensus standards allow for continual revision and improvement as technologies and manufacturing processes change. “These are living documents,” says Tucker. “They change very dramatically. When we worked on the engine document, we finished it in 2004, revised it in 2005 and again in 2006. And we’re required to review it every two years. That’s a major shift from when these documents were vetted through a regulatory process, and it’s a huge advantage to the industry.”
The early success of consensus standards in terms of both the bottom line and safety has many in the industry hoping that the FAA will expand their use to other aircraft. “I would love to see that happen,” says Ellsworth. “I think it’s possible as long as we as an industry do a diligent job of complying with the standards. If people keep their quality control in place and everything that the standard requires, I can’t see why in the future [the FAA] wouldn’t look at streamlining their whole process.”
Some companies are already anticipating that day. At Ballistic Recovery Systems, tests conducted to develop the LSA parachute standard provided more complete data than the tests the company originally conducted in the 1980s when developing chutes for general aviation planes. The company leveraged that data to redesign its entire product line. Today, every parachute BRS sells meets the ASTM standard.
Keeping Air Under the Wings of Change
With aviation consensus standards in their infancy, there is a lot of work left to do, and many more hands are needed to do it. “The clear message,” says Earl Lawrence, who chairs Committee F37, “is that we all have to engage private sector standardization and encourage regulators to use private-sector standards in their policy framework.”
“We’ve been blessed with the caliber of folks who have worked on F38,” says Mike Howell. “And I encourage them to reach out and get their peers involved, too, because the next two or three years are going to have a tremendous impact on this industry, and we need all the folks who have an interest to contribute.”
“What I learned,” says Gregg Ellsworth, who initially had strong reservations about the likelihood of developing LSA consensus standards, “is how interesting the process is and how my own thoughts changed. And it gave me the chance to work with the whole industry. The FAA were just really great to work with. They came out of a government bureaucracy, we came out of an industry where everybody was worried about everybody else and wanted to do their own thing. And all of a sudden, this process just came together and it worked. It never would have happened without the help of a standards organization like ASTM International.” //